In monsoon season, farmers in Maharashtra’s Dhule district are torn between hoping for a downpour and dreading it. The barren area needs water — but as the already dry ground becomes increasingly degraded, rainwater could erode the shallow topsoil that remains and destroy the few plants still able to grow there.

Almost 45 percent of Maharashtra’s land area is turning into a desert, as is a huge chunk of India. Land degradation — the process by which land loses its productivity and ability to support plant life — is normally caused by climate change, human activity or a combination of the two. When land in dry areas degrades, that’s desertification — and desertification’s pace has intensified. It’s now happening at as much as 35 times the historical rate, according to the United Nations.

That’s more than 204 million acres, concentrated in the country’s west. An estimate last year found that land degradation alone cost India over 2 percent of its gross domestic product. According to the U.N., 50 million people across the world are at risk of being displaced in the next decade due to desertification. According to a special report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August, desertification has affected the living area of approximately 500 million people since the 1980s.

In September, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification held its biennial meeting in Noida, India, where world leaders and international organizations discussed how to combat desertification, land degradation and drought. At that meeting, members advocated restoring degraded lands via a global movement.

The most immediate answers, though, may lie in traditional knowledge. In India, some struggling with the impact of desertification are looking to the Thar Desert between India and Pakistan. With 133 residents per square mile, it’s the most populous desert in the world. Temperatures can hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds gust at more than 35 miles per hour. The driest parts of the region receive less than 6 inches of rain per year.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.